So my previous post with glucometerutils news got picked up by Hackaday, and though the comments ended up mostly talking about the (more physical, less practical) note about fiddling with the glucometers hardware themselves (which would suggest me the editor should probably have avoided moving the spotlight in the post, but never mind), I ended up replying to a few comments that were actually topical, to the point that I thought I should be writing about this more extensively.
In the comments, someone brought up Tidepool, which is a no-profit in California that develops what to me appears to be its own data storage and web application for diabetics. This is not far from what Glucosio was meant to be (Update 2021-11-18: the project is gone, you may want to check out the update on that other post) — and you might remember that an interaction with them, had me almost leave open source development, at least for what diabetes is concerned.
The problem with both projects, and a number of others that I’ve been pointed to over the years, is that I find most of them either not practical or web-oriented, or a mixture of the two. With not practical I mean that while building an “universal glucometer” capable of using any random strip is an interesting proposal, it does nothing to improve the patients’ life, and it actually can significantly increase the risks of misreading values and thus, risk the life of the user. For this reason, plus the fact that I do not have enough of a biochemistry understanding to figure out how to evaluate the precision of the meters that are already certified, I don’t invest any time looking into these projects.
Web-based applications such as Tidepool and similar are also far from my interests. I do not have a personal problem with accessing my blood sugar readouts for the sake of research, but I do have some concerns about which actors are allowed access to them. So in particular a startup like Glucosio is not someone I’d be particularly fond of giving access to my data to. Tidepool may be a no-profit, but that does not really make me feel much better, particularly because I would expect that an US-based no-profit would not have gone through all the possible data processing requirements of EU legislation, unlike, say, Abbott. I have already written a lot about why I don’t find self-hosting a good solution so I don’t think I need to spend much time on it here.
Except, there is one extra problem with those apps that require you to set up your own instance — like some of the people who have not been waiting some time ago. While running an app for my own interest may sound like an interesting thing to do, particularly if I want to build up the expertise to run complicated web app stacks, my personal ultimate goal is to have my doctor know what my blood sugar levels are over time. This is the whole point why I started that tool, I wanted to be able to output a PDF that my doctor could see without having to jump around a number of hoops to produce it — I failed to do so, but in part because I lost interest after I started using the awesome Accu-Chek Mobile.
If I were to tell my doctor «Log in on this site here with these credentials and you can see my readouts» he might actually do it, but mostly because of novelty and because he entertains my geekery around trying different meters and solutions. If he started to get this request from dozens of his patients, not only he’d have to keep a password managers just to deal with credentials, but he’d probably just couldn’t have the time to deal with it. The LibreLink app does have the ability to share data with a few services, and he did suggest me to look into diasend, but it looks like it got merged into something else that might or might not work for now, so I gave up.
Now, here is an interesting prospect, and why such apps are not completely worthless in my opinion. If the protocols are open to be used, and the apps are open source and can be set up by anyone, there is space for the doctors to have their own instance set up so that their patients can upload their data. Unfortunately, the idea that being open source this does not involve a significant investment in time and money is patently false. Particularly for important data like this, there has to be proper security, starting from every session being encrypted with TLS, and the data encrypted at rest (it is ironic that neither Tidepool nor Glucosio, at the time of writing, use TLS for their main websites). So I still don’t expect doctors in the public sector to be using these technologies any time soon. But on the other hand, there are more and more apps for this being built by the diabetes tech companies, so maybe we’ll see something happening in the future.
Where does this leave my project? Well, to begin with it’s not a single project but two of them. glucometerutils was born as a proof of concept and is still a handy tool to have. If someone manages to implement output to HTML or to PDF of the data, that would make it a very useful piece of software that does not need to interact with any remote, online application. The protocols repository serves a distinct need: it provides a way for more people to contribute to this ecosystem without requiring each of them to invest significant time in reversing the protocols, or getting in bed with the manufacturers, which – I can only guess – involves NDAs, data-sharing agreements, and similar bureaucracy that most hobbyist developers can’t afford.
Indeed, I know of at least one app, built for iOS, proprietary and commercial (as in, you have to pay for it), that has built support for meters thanks to my repository (and the author gave back in form of corrections and improvements on the documentation!). This is perfectly in line with my reasons to even have such a repository. I don’t care if the consumers and contributors to the repository build closed-source tools, as long as they share the knowledge on how to get to the data. And after that, may the best tool win.
As I said before, smartphones are no longer a luxury and for many people they are the only way they can access the Internet. It makes sense that the same way, for many diabetics it is their only way to analyse their readouts. This is why Contour Next One comes with Bluetooth and a nice app, and why there even are standard Bluetooth specification for glucometers (GLP/GLS) and continuous monitors (CGMP/CGMS). If my work on an open-source tool brings more people the ability to manage their diabetes, even with closed-source software, I’ll consider myself satisfied.
Now, there is one more interesting bit with Tidepool, though: they actually publish a Chrome-based uploader app that is able to download data from many more glucometers than my own tool (and the intersection between the two is minimal). This is great! But, as it happens, it comes with a little bit of a downside: the drivers are not documented at all. I confirmed the reason is that the access to the various meters’ protocols is subject to NDA — so while they can publish the code that access those meters, they cannot publish the specs of the protocols themselves, and that appears to include in-code comments that would make it easy to read what’s going on.
So, one of the things I’m going to do is read through those drivers, and try to write a protocol spec for the meters. It appears that they have a driver for Contour Next meters, which may or may not work for the Contour Next One which I’ve been trying to reverse engineer — I know there is at least one other open-source implementation of accessing data from Contour Next meters, but the other one is GPL-2 and, like OpenGlucose, I’ve avoided looking too closely to the code.
Projects such as Tidepool are extremely important to provide a proper alternative to the otherwise closed-garden of proprietary cloud diabetes management software. And if they become simple, and secure enough to set up, it is possible that some of the doctors will start providing their own instances where their patients can upload the readings, and that will make them also practical. But for now, to me they are only a good source of confrontation to figure out a way forward for my own tools.